Leveraging digital technologies for sustainable development through collective intelligence

“Our work is to bring human/UN values into digital technology, and also ensure all voices are included, especially those of the vulnerable populations who are also impacted directly by the technological decisions.” Jingbo Huang

As digital technologies change quickly, current UNU Macau’s research interests may vary from time to time, but the Institute’s director, Jingbo Huang, believes “the core” of its vision remains the same: “leveraging collective intelligence” to “co-create a sustainable future for all and with all”.

“Machines are scalable, fast and consistent; people are flexible, aware and have values, morality and ethics. Our work is to bring human/UN values into digital technology, and also ensure all voices are included, especially those of the vulnerable populations who are also impacted directly by the technological decisions.”

As a special UN think tank, research and training institute, UNU Macau currently focuses on leveraging digital technologies for sustainable development.

Jingbo Huang notes that, 77 years after the UN Charter was signed in San Francisco, and despite the changing of contexts, “UN’s mandate still holds valid and relevant”. “Instead of world war, we are currently still facing a series of global pressing issues such as the pandemic (and the preparedness for the next one), and climate actions, which are equally challenging to mankind.” So, she adds, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are “a representation and implementation of the UN Charter which focuses around the five Ps – peace, people, prosperity, partnership and planet”. And “one of the most important differences between now and then”, she says, is “the development of technology, especially digital technologies, which are a double-edged sword” and “create additional complexity and challenges for the UN to fulfil its mandate today”.

On one hand, she says, digital technologies offer “opportunities for development”. “For example, in peacekeeping missions, unmanned aircraft systems provide better reconnaissance, surveillance and target acquisition, and thus provide better protection for UN peacekeepers.”

But at the same time, she adds, digital technologies “may pose potential risks to peace, security, and equality”. “For example, biases in Artificial Intelligence (AI) may make the job-search online more difficult for people with disabilities, as the training data for AI in the online recruitment system does not include enough data of people with disabilities’ needs and accommodations.” In addition, design of technologies “can be opaque to general public”, and “the cases of discrimination or lack of digital inclusion are often not easily observable”, she notes.

“So, what role can the UN play to both fulfil its mandate and to address the new challenges in the 4th industrial revolution? How can we amplify the positive contributions of digital technologies and mitigate their risks to ensure equality enjoyed by all online and offline?”

Addressing such challenges, she says, is the current mission of UNU Macau. Its specific research interests, the director adds, currently include “the ethics of AI and new technology, cyber resilience, gender and technology, online youth protection, modelling for disaster management, preparing for the next pandemic, digital twins, etc.”.

Complex systems thinking

UNU Macau’s Head of Research, Serge Stinckwich, notes that while it is important to address “the positive and negative impacts of digital technologies on the SDGs”, it is equally necessary to understand that we cannot do so by looking at the SDGs “in silos”, as an action towards one target may have an impact in other targets. “We should try to embrace the complexity, because we can see the SDGs achievements are a kind of a wicked problem, in which the solution we may deliver may be worse than having no solution.”

So, complex systems, he notes, are composed of different entities which interact with each other, and it is from those interactions that some kinds of phenomena occur. This applies also to the relationship between digital technologies and people. “It’s not possible to consider AI systems alone. It’s a network in which there are interactions between machines and humans.”
Jingbo Huang agrees: “We live in a complex world. The global challenging issues faced by us nowadays are not easily addressed by one single discipline. Instead, we need to look at problems from multiple perspectives, and recognise that different elements are interconnected.”

The director tends to compare complex systems thinking to Chinese traditional medicine, “which treats patients holistically”. And, to “provide insights from different angles”, as well as to provide “holistic and realistic policy recommendations”, UNU Macau’s team must be interdisciplinary, she says.

Current UNU Macau’s researchers come from different fields, including computer science, psychology, public health, communications, and economics. “Sometimes it may be difficult to communicate, because we come from different backgrounds and have different ways of conducting research, but it is very important”, Serge Stinckwich says.

Participatory approach

One way to address complexity, and that is crucial to the current strategic vision of the Institute, is “to engage the citizen in the design of policies, especially digital policies”, Serge Stinckwich says. Because, he adds, sometimes, when we try to understand policies as complex systems, we forget “about the important part: the people”. And a participatory approach, related to the idea of citizen science, he says, can help build “more humane technologies”.

“With a participatory approach, we try to amplify the voices of the marginalised population, who are often passive receivers of technological decisions. Everyone’s voice counts, especially the voices of aging population, women, youth, indigenous people and people with disability. We also empower them to be co-designers of digital technology products and policies. With their participation, our vision of collective intelligence can be achieved”, Jingbo Huang says.

As a computer scientist, Serge Stinckwich points out that nowadays “it is not possible” for universities or the public sector to build certain digital technologies, “because you have to use very powerful machines to train those systems, and you need to have access to lots of text resources to train the systems”. So, this is mostly done by private companies which have access to social media and to thousands of information and data related to their customers. “What we can do is to empower the citizens, the stakeholders.”

But citizen science, the researcher notes, should go “beyond the collection of data”: it should involve citizens in the decision-making process. And that is what the Institute is trying to do while conducting science participatory modelling. “It is not only about collecting data, it is also about engaging the citizens to share their points of view, which may be conflicting, so as to try to solve SDGs’ challenges.”

Policy-relevant research from a ‘UN-insider’

But what comparative advantages can UNU Macau bring about as a UN think tank?

Jingbo Huang has held various managerial positions in the UN in the past 20 years. UNU Macau, she says, “conducts policy-relevant research for the UN system and governments”, while also developing “capacity building activities to help increase digital (AI) literacy for decision-makers”.

“As we stated in the UNU Macau Strategic Plan, we are a ‘UN-insider’. For external partners, we can support them to connect to the broader UN system, facilitate dialogues, and co-create research agendas on topics related to digital technologies and sustainable development. For internal UN partners, we ‘think alike’. The relevancy makes us an ideal collaborator for research and training”, she argues.

The Institute’s researchers in the past and present have been constantly creating policy impact with their research, the director notes. She gives some examples: “Dr. Mamello Thinyane was one of the major writers of the Guide to Developing a National Cybersecurity Strategic (2nd Edition 2021) , an ITU publication to guide the governments to establish national cybersecurity strategy. Dr. Araba Sey has led the EQUALS research coalition to draft the inaugural report entitled “Taking stock: data and evidence on gender equality in digital access, skills and leadership ”, a great contribution to the gender digital equality field, which was referenced by many UN works. Dr. Eleonore Fournier-Tombs and her team explored the ethics of artificial intelligence (AI) from the gender angle , which contributed to the inclusive AI policymaking in Southeast Asia. Dr. Franz Gatzweiler consulted with more than 100 partners from academia, private sector and government, and co-created a report to contribute to the Digital Global Compact, an initiative of the UN Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology – this work sheds light on how we can co-create an open, free and secure digital future for all. Dr. Serge Stinckwich contributed to the International Digital Health and AI research Collaborative (I-DAIR ) to explore how participatory modelling can help with the pandemic preparedness. Just to name a few examples. There are many more.”

But there are also challenges that a research institute faces, as Jingbo Huang admits. One of them is that “it needs a good ‘translation process’, meaning converting academic research outcomes into relevant and critical policy recommendations”. This process, she explains, “also involves languages – academic researchers tend to speak academic language, while policy consumers may prefer action-oriented plain language, and general public would be interested in reading content relevant to the hot topics, and satisfying their intellectual curiosity”. So, dissemination of the research results can take many formats.

But a research institute also strives to successfully fundraise, the director notes. “It is not only as simple as getting paid to conduct research. It involves having compelling visions for research topics, partnership building, finding like-minded people/donors, co-creating projects with donors, and identifying policy consumers from the very beginning to ensure policy impact at a later stage. It takes time to build trust and track record for an institute.”

 

Training

 

Aside from research, the other pillar in UNU Macau’s current strategy is training. “Research and training can be separate, but it is better to go hand in hand”, Jingbo Huang argues. “Research enriches the training/education content, and training inspires further research”, she explains.

UNU Macau’s current course offering are broadly categorised into five main themes: Smart usage of digital technologies for SDGs; Data for a sustainable digital future; Ethics of AI; Modelling for policy making & Computational Behavioural Science; and Digital behaviour and wellbeing. “In the future, we will continue to update our training offerings, when new technology emerges”, the director states. “For example, we recently developed a short course talking about how ChatGPT is not sustainable.”

The director, who received her Doctor of Education degree from Columbia University, specialised in Communication, Computing and Technology in Education, says the Institute’s target audience in terms of training includes UN system leaders, “who manage technological projects”; government decision-makers, “who need to be aware of the impact and implications of technologies when engaged in AI projects”; and youth, “who will invent new technologies and should be aware of the ethical impact of the technological products, and be able to embed the sustainability thinking in the technology design”.

UNU Macau’s unique way of providing critical thinking about SDGs and digital technologies may be a comparative advantage, Serge Stinckwich notes. A “big believer” in open access and open-source software, the Head of Research hopes the Institute can contribute with its specific angle to the development of curricula in different organisations.

He also highlights the importance of “co-designing” training courses with universities from developing countries, which may have different points of views and needs.

Looking ahead, Jingbo Huang says the Institute intends “to develop a joint-degree programme at post-graduate level, e.g. a master’s or doctoral programme”. Education, she says, “takes time, but will have lifelong impact on people”.

“We want to let the next generation represent ethics, human values and sustainability in their work design. It is not only about the faster the better, but also the more inclusive, more sustainable the better”, she says.

And that may be a different story – in a future yet to be told.

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